Contracting Your Pit Orchestra

July 30, 2010


It was my first pit directing experience, and when I got the box of books, I saw a bunch of parts for people I knew. So I gave out the oboe book, 2 violin books, a viola book, a drums book, a flute book, and a trombone book. I would play the piano, and I thought, the big dance numbers I’d sequence on my computer and the real players would play along with the synthesizer. Can you imagine? My oboist was great, but my flute player kept getting lost, and my trombone player was terrible. There is no instrument that can destroy a pit sound quicker than a trombone that’s lost and out of tune. The synth part was impossible to coordinate, and we kept getting out of sync with it and the dancers onstage. The old sound designer who was working the show would just look at me, smile and shake his head. And now I understand why.


When I came into the job I asked what they did for pit players. “We have a drummer who plays for us.”, they tell me. “Fine”, I said, and I got him the book. Months later, first pit rehearsal, the downbeat of the first number. Tempo marking: Funky. The drummer plays swung eighths. Within a quarter note, I knew I was doomed. Plus the drummer was the guy who signs the checks, so there was no escape.


1) Don’t hire a person for every book they send you. Here’s my method: When the box arrives, I take out the drums, bass, and piano books and put them aside. (and guitar for a rock show) I then stack the remaining books from fattest to thinnest. (no joke) The 3 or 4 fattest books and the drums, piano, and bass books get hired. The other books go back in the box. Why not hire the whole box? Well, even if you have the money to do that, the more people you have in your pit, the greater your balance problems, and the more fights you’ll have with the sound crew. Plus, unless you happen to have a bunch of guys who are awesome at your disposal, more people is harder to keep together and there is a higher chance you’ll hire a dud.

2) You’ll have to decide what your goals are for the pit experience. If you really want to use it as an educational experience for the instrumental students, you owe it to them, and to everyone else working on the show to have a bunch of rehearsals; enough rehearsals that they really know the book. Putting under-rehearsed kids in a pit under a well rehearsed show is just a crying shame, and it demoralizes the kids who are playing the music they don’t know. If you don’t have time to really work it, please hire professionals.

3) My criterion for pit players is simple, but I learned the hard way.

a) The player basically needs to be good enough to read the book at sight. Things are going to go wrong in the pit, and if your players are worrying about reading the book, they’ll never catch up when the thing goes off the rails.

b) They have to have a good sense of humor. You’re going to be at some crappy and long rehearsals, and having a sour face in there with you stinks. I don’t care how good you are, if you can’t crack a smile, I don’t want you in my pit.

c) They have to get back on the train. If you get lost, find your way again, or at least try. When I have a player get that look of confusion, then give up and look up at the stage with a shrug, I know it’s not going to work out. A good pit player will be listening and try and find a landmark to get back on track again.

4) I keep a long list of everyone ever recommended to me. When I started contracting pits, I called the people I knew for references, and I’d write down all the info under an instrument heading in a word document. I called the numbers, and when they turned me down, I’d ask them if they knew anyone else who would be interested in a job like the one I was offering. Then I’d write those numbers down and start all over again. It wasn’t long before I had most of the good players in my book. It also helps to have the names of the major instrumental teachers in your area. There’s nothing better than a really good bass player who is a sophomore in high school. They’ll work for peanuts for you for three good years, and they’ll learn some fantastic lessons playing with you. Some of my pit players I met as high schools students are now playing professionally in New York, and I’d never be able to afford them now. After every show, I write the name of the show next to the person’s name on my contact sheet to help me remember them. I’ll also write things about the abilities of the player. Like a guitarist might say: great jazz, no rock. Or a reed player will say: no doubling, or clarinet and some flute. That way I’ll know what I’m looking at when I go to contract my next show.

5) The reed books are an interesting animal in a Broadway show.

In the early days, the Broadway pit orchestra was based on the classical chamber orchestra. There was a flute, an oboe, one or 2 clarinets and a bassoon. As long as the show was from the extended operetta tradition, those would be the reed instruments you’d expect to see in a it orchestra. Most of Robert Russell Bennett’s Rodgers and Hammerstein orchestrations work this way, for example. Slowly in the late 1930s and Early 40’s, saxophones begin to find their way into the orchestra. Usually you’ll find them in the same books the clarinets are in.

Don Walker’s sound in the 1950s and 1960s requires much heavier sax work from the reed section. The person playing oboe and English horn is also required to play a sax and some clarinet now. Normally that person plays Tenor sax, probably because the tenor sax is usually playing a lower note in the harmony, under 2 altos played by a flautist and a clarinetist. A so so sax player is better off playing the lowest note in the chord. The person formerly just playing bassoon is now doing lots of work, playing Baritone sax at the bottom of the group of saxes, playing clarinet or bass clarinet at the bottom of a clarinet choir, and playing bassoon when things are a little more straitlaced. Fortunately many of these reed 5 books are written in such a way that the bass parts can be played on all bassoon or all bass clarinet, which gives you a lot of leeway.

You still see shows done the old operetta way through the 1960s and beyond, but the doublings become more and more common. For example, Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations of A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, because they have such a classical flavor, are almost in the old style, but the clarinet player is doubling second flute, and the bassoon player is also playing clarinet. Once orchestrators got used to the flexibility of doubling, it was hard to go back. Tunick did the same thing for Pacific Overtures, which has a very different flavor, but just doesn’t need saxophones.

From the 1980s through the present, you’ll find two things at work: Economics has forced pit orchestras to cut back on their musicians. Sometimes you’ll see shows with 4, 3, or only 2 reeds. Into The Woods has a flute, a clarinet, and a bassoon. Fewer reeds equal more doublings normally, although there is an incentive not to, because union rules make it so that players who double get paid more. After a certain point, it winds up making more sense to hire another guy. The gigantic pit orchestras are still in play, but they seem to be able to get by with only 5 reed players max. Ragtime, City of Angels, and Les Miz are huge shows, but each uses only 4 reeds. The thing is that in New York, the doublers are so good, you don’t gain much by spreading things out among specialists, and orchestrators usually use the sections in groups, ie. All the saxes together, all the clarinets together, a flute trio, etc.


The actual numbers (Reed I, Reed II, etc.) vary widely from show to show, but if you look through your books, you’ll see the following is generally true:

There is a book (usually Reed I) that looks like this: Flute and Piccolo normally, sometimes Clarinet, Soprano and/or Alto Sax. Normally this book is very flute heavy. In old shows, sometimes it’s only flute, with no doubling. Hire somebody with a good flute embouchure, not a clarinet or sax player who plays flute with an airy tone. Have the guy who dabbles on flute play the book with all the second or 3rd flute parts. For some reason, the alto flute got really popular from the 70s through the 80s, but beware. 1) you’ll never hear it. 2) You’ll never find one! I swear, I called every instrument rental house in Philadelphia and South Jersey for a show recently and nobody had one. 3) your player will pass out from too little oxygen to the brain.

There is a book (Reed II or III) that is very clarinet and alto sax heavy. Sometimes this book has the alto sax lead parts. A quick check will see whether these alto parts are playing the melody of the sax section. It makes sense to give this part to your best sax player who also happens to play clarinet.

There is also a book, Usually Reed II or Reed IV, which is basically Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Tenor Sax. If your show isn’t very lyric, sometimes those oboe lines don’t add up to much, and you can give the lines to a good clarinetist, and they can transpose. But oboes and English Horns sound crappy unless played well, so be careful.

And then there’s Reed V: Clarinet, Bassoon, Bari Sax, Sometimes Bass Clarinet. This is the Bass end of things. I normally don’t hire this book, unless there are really characteristic sounds in the show, like the bass clarinet in The Wizard of Oz. Again, sometimes these parts can be played all on one instrument, if your player isn’t a good doubler.

As you begin to use reed players, listen carefully and make note of what they do well and what they don’t do well, and mark it down so you can know what book to hire them for next show. Believe me, they’d rather sound good. Give them what they do best.

I’ve heard that in national tours, the reed 4 and 5 books are hired from town to town, and that reeds 1-3 are New York players who move with the show. So no crucial material is in Reed 4 or 5, just in case. I don’t know that for sure, but in my experience, nobody misses those 2 books.

6) The percussion/drums book. Look carefully at the book. If there’s a lot of mallets and timpani in it, (or if the book says percussion) you need to hire somebody who can do that well. If there’s a lot of traps work (drum set work) or if the book says drum set, hire somebody who can read well and plays set well. Under no circumstances hire a drummer who can’t read music. It doesn’t matter how great a drummer they are, or how much you like them, or how much they promise to listen to the CD over and over again. If they can’t read music, they will not work in your pit. Better to have no drummer than one who doesn’t read music. There’s an old joke in pit circles: “Q: What are 2 words that srike fear into the heart of a music director. A: Sub Drummer” The reason is that the drummer is the backbone of the pit. If the drummer can’t follow, doesn’t know where he is, or plays tastelessly or too loud, you are sunk, and there’s no recovering.

7) Unless your string section is huge, don’t bother bringing in any violas. Their parts are lost in the pit; the tone just doesn’t carry.

8 ) If you’re working in a school district with multiple musicals, don’t poach players from other pits. Don’t steal all the good strings from the high school show for the Junior High show. Payback is, well, you know…

9) As soon as you have your pit contracted, mail out the material. Don’t wait and think, “I’ll do it later when I have more time.” No you won’t. You’ll wait until the last possible minute and the players won’t get their books in time to really look through them.

Preparation is key in getting together a good pit. You’ll reap the benefits and liabilities of your first choices when the show goes up.



  1. “Putting under-rehearsed kids in a pit under a well rehearsed show is just a crying shame.”

    I just directed my first high school production, having worked as a director primarily in the university setting. It definitely was a different beast in a lot of ways, but one of the most notable shocks was working with the pit band.

    This is where I have to say that the kids playing in the pit were incredibly committed to learning the music and doing their very best. There was a lot of talent in that group.

    But when we first started running with the pit, I suddenly became aware of how disasterous this could be. The show was completely sung (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber). The entire cast was in almost every number (again, thanks a heap ALW). There was a lot of intricate choreography. The school was small, so the pit came from a variety of local schools. Some of the musicians had never played in a pit before (the drummer comes to mind). The skill level ranged from very experienced to not at all. We’d been rehearsing the show for 3 months, the pit had not. The show was to be performed in the gymatorium (because stages in gyms have amazing accoustics, of course). There was no actual pit, so there was no way to mute the instruments and highlight the vocalists. And the median age was of everyone involved was 15/16.

    Oh, the fights! The actors were mad at the pit band. The pit band was exasperated. The MD would wait for the actors to start singing to cue the band, but the actors would wait for the band to start singing. The tempo was too slow for the fast songs and too fast for the slow songs. And if you haven’t had the joy of trying to talk over 60 high schoolers who have been in rehearsal for the last 8 hours, you’re really missing out.

    But I’m writing all this to say that it actually worked out! Everything fell into place. We figured out a way to balance the sound so everyone coud be heard, the tempo was established (and while it remained a little on the fast side, the actors seemed to like the added energy), and the MD and pit were fantastic.

    Yes, a pit band can destroy a musical. I’ve seen it happen. And I would be lying if I said I don’t panic every time the pit is introduced. But student theatre is a learning experience, and if I can work with actors who have never been on stage, the MD should definitely be allowed to work with musicians who have never played in a pit. And as the frazzled director, I have learned that I need to keep my cool as we overcome the learning curve. The results are sometimes awesome.

    • What a great comment! Wherever you wind up, whether the pit arrives ready to go or is a mess, the key is to be flexible and ready for anything.

      As Chris Horn says in the other post today, you have to give kids their first shot at a pit; otherwise how do people learn how to play in pit orchestras? On the other hand, if you have a pit with a lot of green talent, you owe it to everyone to give them a lot of rehearsal time so that they can do their best. And you have to plan for that early, you have very little time in tech week to solve these problems.

  2. Great post, Peter. Chris really does it right with the inclusion of kids next to pros. I once saw a production of Sound of Music at a middle school where the entire pit was comprised of only students because the teacher wanted the kids to experience playing the pit. Lots of string playing very badly out of tune (lowered 3rds almost consistently) and it sounded like crazy contemporary major vs minor stuff. Seemed unfair to me, but strangely, everybody seemed happy with the outcome!

    • Mindy-
      It’s funny, I think people are always happy with the outcome. Matt and I call it the “That’s my Barney” syndrome, from the last scene in the Music Man where everyone plays and sounds terrible, but the parents are delighted. I think you have to set a standard for yourself that is higher than what your parents will be happy with. Something you do very well, incidentally.

  3. […] Here’s a little of what he has to say about hiring woodwind players—I do suggest reading the whole thing. The actual numbers (Reed I, Reed II, etc.) vary widely from show to show, but if you look through […]

  4. Great article. I am in my second pit experience. Like the author, I remember asking “so, who prepares the pit.”. To which they replied….uh you. My very first show was Beauty and the Beast. I’m at a school with just over 320 students and so the best players from the band program were all in the cast. That left me with two flutes, two trumpets, a trumpeter on marching horn (not sure how I let that happen) and a percussionist/wrestler. It became quickly evident that I had a ton of work to do. With God’s grace we made it. I ended up getting an adult to play in each section to give us a more solid pit and those students a good learning experience. We filled in the missing parts with orchExtra. Not sure I’ll ever do that again unless I absolutely have to.
    This year is guys and dolls, my backbone of the pit is an extremely accomplished pianist/keyboardist. He fills in where orchExtra left off but plays live. We pipe his keyboard to monitors on the stage so the singers have a little bit of security. My degree is in choral education so my pit knowledge is limited but by letting the players know that we seem to be getting along fine. I totally agree about the requisite of smiling in my pit. That starts with me of course. Anyway, thanks for the article. It’s good to know I’m not the only one dealing with these things

  5. How are the reed books setup? Also what if you don’t have anyone who can double.. My thought was cant you just have every individual reed instrument in the pit and part it out and not double?

    • Of course you can part out the books; I’ve seen it done often! The reasons not to are twofold: 1) if you’re paying the musicians, it can be prohibitively expensive. 2) It takes up 3 or 4 times the amount of space in your pit as if you have single players doubling multiple instruments. If those two issues aren’t a problem for you, you should definitely do it.

  6. Thank you for this great post! VERY informative! We will be producing Into the Woods in the spring next year. Any suggestions on paring down that orchestra? I usually hire players, but we have balance issues and the fewest possible players always helps us.

    • Hope I’m not too late to reply here!
      Into the Woods has really a great chamber pit, and you should be able to manage the balance much better than, say, on a big dance show. The piano is the central player in that show, and I feel like you can add any set of players from the orchestration to great effect, provided they’re strong, tasteful players. It’s timely to do this show when the film is coming up, no?

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